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Vet's Corner

How to look after a dog after surgery

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Petplan veterinary expert Brian Faulkner shares his tips for helping your dog make a speedy recovery after an operation.

What to expect after surgery

'Any operation that your dog undergoes will require a general anaesthetic, and the effects of this can take a short while to wear off,' Brian says. 'The anaesthetic will probably leave your pet a bit dozy and wobbly on his feet and he'll need to sleep it off at home. He'll also be subdued, feel a little bruised from the surgery and may not be very hungry initially.'

Give the right kinds of food

'The best food to offer your dog after surgery is a "light and white" diet, such as cooked chicken and rice, which dogs find easier to digest than normal pet foods,' Brian recommends.

Your pet is likely to regain his normal appetite within 24 hours and, if he's eaten his lighter meals without a problem, you can then slowly reintroduce his normal food over the course of a day or two. 'Keep in mind that good-quality, nutritious food throughout the recuperation period is important to boost nourishment and help a speedy recovery,' says Brian.

If you notice that your dog is off his food, it could be due to lingering pain, an infection, or an ongoing health condition. Some pets feel sick and may vomit so make sure you follow your vet's advice on feeding after surgery. Speak to your vet if you have any concerns, as they'll be able to recommend exactly what steps to take in aiding your pet's recovery.

Manage your pet's pain

After your dog's operation, a vet or veterinary nurse will explain how to use the pain relief medications needed to keep your dog as comfortable as possible. 'It's vital that you stick carefully to the instructions on exactly when and how much medication to give,' Brian says. 'This will ensure that the drugs can effectively prevent any unnecessary pain while your dog recovers. Remember, your pet won't only be feeling sore where the surgical incision was made, but will also have discomfort from the internal healing.'

Keep your dog comfortable

Your dog's sleeping area might need to be customised, as some baskets can be too cramped and restrictive after surgery. 'Comfort is crucial in helping your dog recover quickly, but curling up in his normal basket could pull at his wounds and might cause him pain,' says Brian. 'It can be worth creating a larger bed in a quiet area of the house. This will allow your dog to stretch out, so there's no extra pressure on any bandaged or sensitive parts of his body.'

Limit movement

Most vets advise restricting your dog's movement after surgery, as sudden stretching movements can interfere with the healing process.

Fortunately, a lot of canine patients don't need much confined rest, and will cope well by being kept indoors with only essential trips outside for toilet breaks. 'You'll also need to make sure you don't leave your dog in parts of the house where he can climb or jump unassisted, such as going up stairs or leaping onto sofas,' says Brian.

However, in some cases - such as orthopaedic surgery - strictly limiting your dog's movement is essential for a good recovery. 'Your vet may recommend cage rest, and while most dogs aren't too keen on this there are ways to make it more comfortable,' Brian says. 'For example, the cage should be big enough for your dog to stand up and turn around in, especially if he is wearing a stiff cone-shaped collar. You'll also need to check that there's enough room in the cage for water and food bowls, and that they're kept apart from your dog's bedding.'

Care for wounds

Preventing your dog from biting, chewing or scratching his stitches or bandages can be a challenge. A classic cone-shaped collar will usually prevent him from getting to the wound, but many dogs take a while to adjust to it. 'You could try a softer doughnut-style collar, which is as effective but less cumbersome and more comfortable - especially for sleeping,' Brian suggests. 'And, depending on where the wound is, you could also protect the healing area with a special medical pet shirt.' These are available from some vets, pet supply stores or online retailers.

Your dog's stitches will usually be removed 10 to 14 days after the operation. 'Some vets don't use external skin sutures, and in this case the stitches will be inside your dog's wound and will simply dissolve. But you'll still need to prevent your pet from licking the area, as this will slow down the healing process,' explains Brian.

'It's also vital that you keep your dog's bandages dry at all times. Whenever your pet goes outside - whether it's for a walk or just for a bathroom break - make sure to cover the dressing with a plastic bag or cling film to protect it from wet or damp grass. Then take off the waterproof covering as soon as you get back indoors, to prevent sweat collecting under the bandage and increasing the chances of an infection.'

Stick to follow-up appointments

Don't miss any scheduled check-ups after the operation, as it's essential that your pet's bandages aren't left on for too long. If the dressing isn't changed at the right time, it can lead to pressure sores and might also affect the blood supply to the healing area.

'Bandages must be correctly applied - not too tight and not too loose - so it's best to leave it to your vet,' says Brian. 'If the bandage has fallen off, you notice that blood is seeping through it, or there's an unpleasant odour or swelling around the area, make an appointment with your vet immediately.'

Boost doggy morale

'Dogs often recover quickly from the anaesthetic, but obviously don't know that they need a recuperation period to allow their wounds to heal,' Brian says. 'A sudden break in your pet's routine can be frustrating for him, so it's important that you give him reassurance in other ways.'

Keep him amused and stimulated with plenty of attention and gentle games that won't cause any stretching or leaping around - a chew toy or squeaky plaything will usually do the trick. Treats are also a sure-fire way to get your dog's tail wagging, but keep in mind that you'll need to monitor his overall calorie consumption as he won't be able to get rid of extra energy through exercise.

Recovery Times

'Generally, soft tissue operations - such as neutering or abdominal surgery - will recover more quickly than procedures to do with the bones, joints and ligaments,' Brian says. Soft tissue operations are usually around 80% better after two to three weeks, and will be completely better by around six weeks. Operations to bones and ligaments can take longer, and are usually around 80% healed after eight to 12 weeks, but can take four to five months to recover completely. 'It's normal to feel guilty about putting your pet through the ordeal of an operation, but it can help to focus on the fact that it was a necessary procedure to help keep your pet healthy. And remember, dogs usually bounce back much more quickly from surgery than we humans do,' Brian says.

If you have any concerns about how quickly your pet is recovering, or want more information on when you can reintroduce your pet's normal diet and exercise routine, don't hesitate to give your vet a call.

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